Hath Not the Potter Power Over the Clay

Eric Lis

Recently, I’ve gotten back to watching the Harry Potter films, because one of my movie-buddies wanted to see them again. They’re fairly solid movies – particularly the far superior Rifftrax versions – but on this particular watch-through, I’ve been enjoying trying to pick apart the system behind the magic. Given my interests, this, of course, includes the healing magic, which in some respects seems extremely powerful and in other remarkably ineffective. Considering the capacities of the wizards of that universe to warp reality, change the flow of time, and massively violate the laws of conservation of energy and mass, I’m a bit surprised that their healing magic isn’t more sophisticated. In any event, there are some interesting differences between their healing magic and the systems we’re more familiar with, so the stories offer some interesting variants which could easily be incorporated into a game.

In the spirit of full disclosure, like the hateful philistines who’ve seen the Lord of the Rings films but never read the books, I’ve never cracked open a Harry Potter novel. I know enough about them to know that there are important differences between them and the movies, and that obviously the magic is much better developed in the books. I’ve made up for this by doing some reading about the novels, but that isn’t the same as reading the novels themselves. I probably lack some of the knowledge for a full discussion of this topic, but then, that’s really a reason for you to do some research on your own, right?

The biggest and most obvious difference between Harry Potter and classic medieval fantasy settings is that in Harry Potter, we are explicitly and repeatedly told that no magic can bring back the dead, as opposed to in D&D or Pathfinder, where it’s often just the work of a few minutes, or possibly a sub-quest. I’m a bit skeptical of this apparently absolute rule; we know that ghosts and other undead exist in that world, and given that their magic allows the storing and perfect retrieval of memories and personalities, as well as creating and shaping matter into living bodies, I find it hard to believe that nobody has ever resurrected a loved one as a golem or construct or something at the very least. Perhaps what they really mean is that the process invariably goes horrifically wrong in a series of catastrophes that draw elements from Frankenstein and plot twists from Pet Sematary.

The actual healing magic in the series seem to be very variable in specificity and complexity. As with D&D, we see one spell that can be used to close wounds, but the spell may have to be cast repeatedly and it’s apparently unable to regrow lost limbs, making it analogous to D&D’s cure spells. Simpler cantrips seem designed to heal small wounds. Broken bones are easily healed within a minute, while many of the magical diseases seem to require a very specific cure, such as tying the liver of a toad to a person’s throat under a full moon; the wizards seem not to have a version of D&D’s all-purpose remove disease. The books and movies show us other specific spells, such as one that can be used to save a choking victim. We don’t know how the wizards treat mundane illnesses such as flu or cancer; even baby wizard seem to spontaneously manifest magic to protect themselves from injury, so it’s possible that wizards are simply immune to human ailments (which may explain why many of them live well past a century), but then one is left to wonder whether the wizards have miraculous powers to heal sick humans and choose not to use them. It seems likely that not everyone has the power or expertise to use more powerful healing spells, as evidenced by a spell which bandages and splints a wounded limb instead of instantly fixing it.

Potions seem to play a much larger role in this universe’s healing than does in our campaigns, which probably reflects that healing spells are more complicated and harder to use. Once again, potions seem to be extremely specific, unlike in D&D and Pathfinder (where the healing systems have been made as simple as possible for the sake of playability). We know one potion which can regrow lost bones, or speed the healing of broken bones, and another potion which seems to be specific for curing colds (which proves that wizards aren’t totally immune to human illnesses). Perhaps the potion I found most interesting was a “blood-replenishing potion” mentioned in the books; this is probably frequently used in much the same way as a D&D restoration  spell, and its existence shows us that a lot of the time, wizards have to use their magic to alleviate symptoms instead of illnesses.

One other point which deserves mention is that, since the Harry Potter universe doesn’t distinguish between arcane and divine casters, any wizard can conceivably become a healer. Interestingly, Hogwarts’ main healer appears to be a nurse. Given the number of severe and life-threatening injuries that their campus seems to see on a regular basis, I’m surprised that there isn’t some wizardly version of a doctor present. The books clearly indicate that expert healers are known as Healers or mediwizards, among other titles; it isn’t clear if that outranks a nurse, and I wonder if the Hogwarts nurse holds that title simply because of tradition.

Unfortunately, for all that we learn a lot about many of the classes that the students take, we learn almost nothing about how they learn healing magic, which suggests to me it’s a very minor part of Hogwarts training. I can’t help but feel that this is something they would want the children to know early on, unless, of course, healing magic has the potential to be wildly misused. This may very well be the case; it shouldn’t take much imagination to come up with combat applications for spells that dissolve an opponent’s bones or change the quality of their vision.

There are any number of possible variant rules for healing magic that the Harry Potter universe might inspire, including but by no means limited to:

  • Any spellcaster can use healing magic, but most such spells are high-level and most casters never learn or master them. Because of the rarity of skilled healers, potion-selling is a lucrative business
  • The higher level a caster, the faster spells work; a low level character can close wounds, but it takes hours of rest
  • Spells can alleviate chronic health problems such as poor vision (so perhaps also diabetes, or cancer, or genetic disorders) but the effects are temporary
  • Healing spells have a chance of misfiring if used incorrectly, such as disintegrating bones instead of healing them
  • Every illness and poison requires a specific spell or treatment, meaning that while healing might be incredibly easy, diagnosis can be a major obstacle

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on July 19, 2015. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system